THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT (March 4, 2018)

For Jews, the temple in Jerusalem was the center of Jewish belief and worship. The holy of holies was the most sacred part of the temple for it contained the Ark of the Covenant. The ark held the tablets of the Ten Commandments, a most important message from God and understood to be the presence of God.

All four Gospels relate the temple cleansing, so, obviously, it held great significance in the first generations of Christianity.

The incident is treated differently in the synoptic Gospels [Matthew, Mark and Luke] than in the “different” Gospel, John. In the Synoptics, the cleansing occurred during Jesus’ only visit to Jerusalem as an adult, near the very end of his ministry -- celebrated at the beginning of “Holy Week.” The three Synoptic Gospels see this event as the final straw, the motive, for the Jewish hierarchy to seek the execution order for Jesus.

In the Gospel of John, the event occurred at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry [ch 2]. The difference in placing the time of the event is significant.

We learn at least two lessons from this episode: first, a shift in the locus of God’s presence. The temple was the most tangible place of the presence of God in the Jewish faith. It was the destination point of sacred pilgrimage and the place of ritual-worship along with the sordid businesses that preceded that worship and riled Jesus.

By the time John wrote his gospel - about the year 100 - the Romans had destroyed the temple. The Jews then saw the presence of God in the synagogues where the torah was studied. By that time, John tells us that the presence of God in the Christian era is neither in the temple of Jerusalem nor in the synagogue. The Jewish system had failed to fulfill its mission. From the Christian perspective the Jewish buildings were replaced with a new “place”: Jesus, forming what we now call the “mystical body of Christ.”

Jesus said today: “Destroy this temple [his body] and in 3 days I will raise it up.” Jesus will later tell the Samaritan woman about the appropriate place for worship: neither Mt. Gerizim in Samaria nor the temple mount in Judea will be the place for worship; divine presence is the person of Jesus himself.

But, there is more. We remember after the events of Holy Week; Saul, the Jewish persecutor out to capture Christians, was knocked on his humility, and Jesus asked him the soul-searching question: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” This is revelation: Jesus identifies the Christian community with himself. He, together with his body, the community, replaces the temple and becomes the locus of the presence of god in the new era. Mega change.

The second lesson of today is the powerful insight that relationship is now the key category in Christianity. In John’s Gospel, Jesus said, “I have called you friends,” a relational word; “When you pray, say ‘our father...’” a relational word whereby we also hold Jesus to be our brother - a relational word.

The holy of holies housed the tablets of the Ten Commandments that we heard about in the First Reading. Of the ten, eight are stated negatively: “Thou shalt not.” Only two are stated positively: “Keep holy the Sabbath” and “Honor your mother and father.” The one speaks of honoring God; the second speaks of honoring our first neighbors, our parents, and our first community.

Curiously, many centuries later, when Jesus was asked the question: “What is the greatest commandment?” He answered that the greatest is love God; the second is like it: love your neighbor. Jesus expanded our very first community of parent-neighbors to include everyone . . . Even enemies. Love is the ultimate relationship.

The advantage of negatively phrased commandments is that we can be fairly sure that we have obeyed them completely. Positively phrased commands keep holy the Lord’s day or honor your father and mother in the Old Testament, love god and love your neighbor in the New Testament have no specified lids that empower us to say. “i have kept the commandment; I have sufficiently loved; I can put the lid on. Lack of clarity always remains. Who of us can ever say, “I have loved enough?”

Focus on the things of religion parallels the sad situation of a spouse or other loved one who would attempt to substitute “things” like gifts for presence, conversation, affection, the accoutrements of relationship.

As we approach the midpoint of Lent, we are reminded: “Rend your hearts [the seat of relationship] and not your garments, ‘things’.”